The artistry of Pittsburgh-based Malcolm James McCormick was on public display throughout his 11 years actively making music. His songwriting was ripe with self-awareness. He could be unabashedly honest about his worldview, personal life and current mental state while delicately infusing love through lyricism. His pen could strum from an ode to romance with a woman to a deadly dance with narcotics like a progression on a guitar. He spent time working as a producer under the moniker Larry Fisherman, sharpening his ear for harmony across a track. He could seamlessly blend jazz, electronica and elements of rock instrumentations with soul-infused vocal ad-libs. Mac Miller meticulously worked to improve his skills as a rapper, sparking friendship, collaboration and respect among his hip-hop peers like Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Wiz Khalifa.
Bringing together all of his musical strengths is Mac Miller’s final album “Circles” (2020). The project was released on Jan. 17 and is abstract in every sense of the word. “Complicated” and “Blue World” exercise an upbeat production with lyrics that display his most fully realized sense of maturity to date. “That’s On Me” and “Hands” feature prominent drums played by Miller himself, invoking the artistry that was within him from the very beginning.
Miller undoubtedly made his way into the world of hip-hop as a smiling underdog. He was 15 years old when he dropped his first mixtape, under the stage name Easy Mac. “But My Mackin’ Ain’t Easy” (2007) acts as a clear homage to his early influences. His raps over sampled beats from the rapper Nas and A Tribe Called Quest showed signs of his respect for the art but were elementary at best. This would also be a sign of legal battles to come as Miller continued to release original songs over uncleared samples on efforts like “The World is Mine” (2007) and “Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza” (2010).
After signing with Rostrum Records, “Blue Slide Park” (2011) marked the release of Miller’s debut studio album named in honor of Frick Park in his hometown. With an increased budget for accompanying visuals and access to studio equipment to collaborate with producers on original beats, Miller showed love to places that fostered his upbringing. “Best Day Ever” (2011) and “Macadelic” (2012) beam with authenticity and nostalgia as he gains the confidence to express himself through experimentation.
Continuing to release mixtapes and extended play releases under varying monikers, he developed a solid following of listeners eager to hear what was next for the artist. His infectious, full-of-life personality made for hours of content with established interviewers and music journalists alike. While he professed his love for smoking weed early on in his career, the self-induced highs brought upon by THC were not enough for him to ease the pressures of being a star on the brink of major success. He started consuming lean, a mixture of soda and cough medicine, among other highly addictive substances throughout the production of his second studio album “Watching Movies with the Sound Off” (2013).
He examined his relationship with cocaine even further on his recently rereleased mixtape “Faces” (2014). Miller’s next feat “GO:OD AM” (2015) featured some of his most honest perspectives on life and death. On “Brand Name,” he explains he hopes he doesn’t join the 27 Club, an infamous line of musicians who passed away at the age 27, typically due to overdose. “Weekend” featuring Miguel is the album’s lead single, a catchy tune about partying on the weekends.
His final three projects would have Miller thrust into conceptual work like never before. “Divine Feminine” (2016) marked a true embrace of his love for women, namely his then-girlfriend Ariana Grande who is featured on “My Favorite Part.” He revisits sing-songy coital noises as instrumentation on “Skins” and draws parallels between God and love-making on his track with Kendrick Lamar. The bass-thumping “Dang!” featuring Anderson .Paak is an accessible tune sharing similar sentiments.
Next, Miller embarked on a two-sided concept project to create a dual-listening experience. First came the Grammy-nominated “Swimming” (2018). He explains through tracks like “Come Back to Earth” that he was treading in dangerous waters as his compulsive drug use became overwhelming. When faced with the choice to sink or swim, tracks like “Self Care” and “2009” offer a sense that Mac Miller is hopeful he won’t be pulled underneath the suffocating waters of addiction any longer. “It ain’t 2009 no more / Yeah, I know what’s behind those doors” he croons on the latter song.
He explained the ethereal outro of the album’s final track, “So It Goes,” in a tweet on Sept. 7, 2018. “I told Jon Brion to play the ascension into heaven and he nailed it,” he said, referencing his longtime producer. Ten hours later, Mac Miller was pronounced dead in his Studio City apartment with the autopsy report showing an accidental overdose. A mixture of alcohol, cocaine and pills laced with fentanyl ended the 26-year-old’s life.
Unbeknownst to the mourning fans he left behind, Miller’s second side of the project was still to come. Sonically and lyrically, “Circles” (2020) plays off of the outer worldly concept teased at the end of “Swimming.” Miller reflects on his status as a public figure and people expecting to hear “Good News” out of him. He sings of a tender awareness surrounding lies he’s told about his recovery, understanding there is a whole lot more for him “waiting on the other side.” “Once a Day” plays on the circular nature of the sun rising and setting. For any person who struggles with addiction, he speaks of the endless cycle of choosing to recover or to relapse as a day-in and day-out activity. Unable to quit using substances completely, he knew his time on Earth would be spent swimming in circles until the inevitable day would come for him too.
Throughout his career, Mac Miller displayed true versatile musicality as a singer, drummer, rapper, guitarist, pianist and visionary. From naiveness and youthfulness to an all-knowing wisdom, his perspectives take shape in an infinite circle with his final, posthumous release cementing his legacy.